Cabinda to Cape Town: how crime-proof are Africa’s Atlantic shores?

With all eyes on pirates and politics in the Gulf of Guinea and the Indian Ocean, who is keeping an eye on Africa’s South Atlantic?

The Atlantic Ocean, divided into North and South, has historically been central to transoceanic relations, especially global trade. Today, the Atlantic’s natural resources and strategic location connecting Africa, Europe, and the Americas continue to facilitate the transport and sourcing of goods – both legal and illegal.

The criminal economies of the Atlantic date back several centuries to when pirates and slave traders scoured the seas. Because most of this activity was concentrated in the North Atlantic, little is known about the historical development of criminal economies in the South Atlantic. This persists today as attacks on vessels in the Gulf of Guinea and cocaine trafficking from South America focus the international community’s attention firmly on Africa’s North Atlantic coast.

More recently, resurgent piracy and Houthi attacks on vessels in the Western Indian Ocean have also refocused awareness there. These events, among other reasons, have arguably caused the South Atlantic to receive only fragmented attention.

Chart 1: Map of the Atlantic Ocean Chart 1: Map of the Atlantic Ocean

Source: International Institute for Law of the Sea Studies (IILSS)

Southern Africa’s Atlantic coastline is a treasure trove of unique biodiversity and natural resources, including fish, oil and diamonds. It sustains coastal communities and is crucial to world trade. Several ports create vital maritime trade corridors for inland neighbours.

But as African countries and foreign interests seek to unlock the full potential of the ocean economy, they’re contending with criminals similarly competing for this geostrategic ocean space. These actors equally benefit from increased maritime trade and technological developments that make vessels bigger, faster and able to travel longer distances.

A significant threat facing all Atlantic African states is fisheries crime, ranging from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing to high-level corruption. In the South Atlantic, such examples abound as much as fish stocks once did.

In Namibia, high-ranking government officials benefitted from awarding fishing quotas to an Icelandic company at the cost of local companies and their workers. Namibia reportedly loses around US$80 million annually to illegal fishing, including by vessels licensed to operate in Angola’s waters. Angola itself experiences illegal fishing by foreign fleets and was flagged by the United States (US) in 2023 due to possible IUU fishing activity.

Owing to its rich offshore oil deposits, Angola is one of Africa’s biggest oil producers. This has led to vessel attacks in Northern Angola and cross-border fuel smuggling to Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Oil and gas deposits were also recently discovered off Namibia’s coast, which is already mined for diamonds. Such lucrative spoils typically attract both big multinational companies and transnational criminal networks.

Resurgent piracy and Houthi attacks echo centuries-old Atlantic criminal economies

The United Nations’ Global Report on Cocaine 2023 highlights Southern Africa’s increasingly important role in the South American cocaine trade. Although Southern African countries primarily serve as transit states, domestic cocaine consumption has increased as greater quantities move through the region. The report notes increased maritime trafficking to and from South Africa, a long-favoured transit node for cocaine shipments, where record amounts of cocaine have been seized in recent years.

Although maritime cocaine seizures in Namibia have been minor, the report warns of its vulnerability to drug traffickers due to its location. It also notes the historical connection between Brazilian drug networks and Lusophone Angola.

Chart 2: Cocaine trafficking routes affecting Southern and Eastern Africa, 2018–2022 Chart 2: Cocaine trafficking routes affecting Southern and Eastern Africa, 2018–2022

Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Report on Cocaine 2023

These examples illustrate that South Atlantic African littoral states are exploited as a passage for vessels engaged in numerous transnational illegal activities offshore, in ports and on the littoral. So, how is the region safeguarding its shores?

Southern Africa, like most of the continent, has limited capacity to cover its large coastal waters and must contend with criminal networks traversing sovereign maritime borders and the high seas, drifting between jurisdictions. Therefore, sharing capacities and information to collectively safeguard its shores is non-negotiable.

Southern Africa’s Atlantic coastline is rich in biodiversity and resources like fish, oil and diamonds

But, unlike the Indian Ocean Rim Association, no Pan-Atlantic initiative successfully engages all Atlantic littoral states on security matters. There are cooperative regional agreements, but these are typically limited in scope. For example, South Africa and Angola are respectively signatories to the Djibouti and Yaoundé Codes of Conduct. Both codes were born from the need for cooperative counter-piracy efforts, but they also extend to other maritime crimes. Namibia isn’t a party to either, so it falls outside these codes’ architecture.

Namibia, Angola and South Africa constitute the Benguela Current Convention, but its focus is limited to conservation and sustainable resource use in the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem. All three countries are parties to the Zone of Peace and Cooperation of the South Atlantic (ZOPACAS) – whose members met for the first time in a decade last year to try to revive it.

Recently, Angola joined the US-driven Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation, which includes 36 Atlantic states. But like the Benguela Current Convention and ZOPACAS, the Partnership’s primary aims are at best indirectly related to security. Instead, it focuses on economic development, environmental protection, science, and technology.

While these are essential for security, security is also necessary for development. This is encompassed in the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Integrated Maritime Security Strategy, which could also provide a framework for cooperation. But, says ISS Maritime Project Leader Tim Walker, the strategy needs renewed SADC engagement to ensure ‘reinvigorated implementation.’ There’s also the recently established Atlantic African States Process, but as it is ad hoc, high-level meetings are unlikely to result in tangible cooperation at sea.

Now is the time to collectively map and plan against sea spoilers to avoid consequences

So there’s currently no holistic, coordinated effort actively mapping and targeting criminal activities in Africa’s South Atlantic, potentially leaving a security void.

Measures to safeguard Africa’s South Atlantic are even more pressing now that vessel traffic has increased due to ships being rerouted around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. This could be further exasperated as drought limits transit through the Panama Canal.

Because South Africa’s ports lack capacity and face deteriorating infrastructure, Angola and Namibia could take on the bulk of rerouted vessels through their waters and ports. If Russian oil sanctions increase demand for African oil, this poses a further risk. So, too, do the likely effects of climate change on access to declining marine living resources, with dire implications for African countries and coastal communities.

While more trade will boost the region economically, it will further strain the limited capacity to oversee vessel activities. This could provide fertile ground for criminal networks hoping to expand their repertoires in the Atlantic waters off Southern Africa.

Whether linking up with existing structures or being established on a bilateral or multilateral basis, now is the time to collectively map and plan against spoilers at sea or possibly face the consequences of not doing so.

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